It has been several years since I did a backpacking trip that could even come close to being called a substantial challenge. That's because I've just not done anything lengthy in terms of time or distance travelled. I've done several overnights or long weekends and some of them had their own particular challenges like the winter kayaking trip of 2014 or even last fall's longer weekend because the weather became so annoying. But this trip into the Sierras of Kings Canyon National Park represented the most challenging trip I've tackled, in several respects, since the 2010 TGO Challenge trek and the challenges presented by that trip were still different in some key ways from this trip. When I woke up on the starting Friday morning of the 2008 TGO Challenge I recall feeling serious butterflies about what I was about to attempt. I wasn't that worried about the physical challenges of the trek. I was worried about finding my way; about getting from point A to B. I wasn't too concerned about the weather in Scotland despite the cries from my UK comrades that you yanks don't know what bad weather really is (ha!). This time my concerns were definitely much more focused upon the physical challenges. Could I get from point A to B carrying my 40-pound backpack, dealing with the altitude and elevation that I'd have to climb and descend each day (we started at just over 5,000 feet above sea level and the trip's high point would be around 10,250 feet above sea level). Was the weather going to kick our butts and what trials and tribulations would I have to deal with with daily camp chores. I wasn't all that worried about finding our way because we would be following a trail and Andy, who has done numerous trips in the region, was confident. But physical challenges certainly can affect mental aspects of the 5journey. I worried about how my capabilities would impact upon my enjoyment of the trip and how that would affect Andy's enjoyment of the trip.
The flight to Fresno is straightforward though a bit rushed. We had to hustle through the airport in Salt Lake City, thank goodness for moving sidewalks, to get to our puddle jumper flight to Fresno. I'm very glad I was able to follow Andy as I'm not sure I'd have been able to zip through the airport nearly as quickly on my own. Once we retrieved our rather heavy luggage in Fresno we stepped out into the oppressive heat of a mid-May early afternoon Fresno day. Not pleasant. Fresno has a climate that is known as cold semi-arid. Cold refers to the wintertime temperatures which can dip to near freezing and summers aren't as hot as a hot arid climate would see. But, that doesn't mean it is anywhere near cool in mid-May. We left the airport lugging our gear under cloudless blue skies with a temperature hovering around 87F (30C). We were glad to get in the car and start on our way into the mountains where it would be considerably cooler. Passing lines of orange trees, farm fields, California poppies, and more growing things you quickly realize just how much irrigation must be going on to create so many growing things. After all Fresno only gets about 12 inches of rain per year. We wound our way ever higher into the mountains and the farm fields gave way to mountain forests full of mostly pines I believe. It is a nice drive with plenty to look at if you have time to stop. We were in a hurry though as we needed to get to a campground to find a campsite. We pulled into Grants Grove and quickly learned our adventure was going to take a detour: they had no stove fuel. We continued along CA. 180, probably too quickly, to get to Sentinel Campground which is just a few miles away from Road's End Trailhead. We would figure out what to do about the lack of fuel after we found a place to sleep. Campsite 42 was vacant and we settled in to figure out our next move. We could drive all the way back to Fresno and the REI there or see if the general store at Lodgepole had fuel. Fresno was now the better part of two hours away; Lodgepole a bit closer and who knew if they'd have fuel. We trusted that the store clerk we managed to reach by phone, Grants Grove is the sole place you can get a cell phone signal, knew her stuff and went to Lodgepole. Lo and behold our adventure was truly a going concern: we hit a pothole and dealt with it.
We didn't rise at the crack of dawn on Sunday. Saturday was a long day with the flights, driving to and fro in the parks, setting up camp, having a tasty dinner = despite the seemingly clueless hostess at Wuksachi Lodge, and our trial and tribulations finding stove fuel and discovering that the pita bread the store sold likely tips the scales at well over one pound which was far more weight than either of us wanted to add to our packs for mere sandwich containment. We packed up, managed to get a photo taken of us both with our packs on and then said goodbye to the front country and headed off to Road's End trailhead about 5 miles way. It was a fine sunny morning and we were excited to get going. A little after 10:00 we hoisted our entirely too heavy, though I suspect nowhere near as heavy as some packs we would see, packs and sallied forth.
The trail is deceptively easy at first. In just a couple minutes you come to a stream that has some very wiggly logs spanning it forming an improvised bridge. Had I not been wearing a pack I'm sure I could have walked it easily enough. But with the pack it felt iffy to cross. Andy was kind enough to carry my pack across (after carrying his). I expect most people just walk across the bridge-of-sorts without a thought. Then the trail, exceedingly wide at this point, works its way deeper into the pine forest ascending very slowly as it goes. For the first mile or so you don't actually feel like you are in forest as views are pretty open but eventually the trail narrows down to what you would consider a more standard trail. The forest, lined with ferns, thickens with many trees climbing towards the sky. But for the first two miles, until you reach the first trail junction, it is surprisingly easy going. That wouldn't last.
Taken by Andy Mytys. We had been in camp for somewhat more than an hour (Andy longer than I by 20 minutes or so) when this fellow and some comrades wandered on through. All told we spotted 5 deer at this time and as we packed up the following morning. I'm sure the deer find valuable, though icky leavings. One found a pee-site and turned it into a deer lick: salt is good.
We turned on to the trail heading towards Mist Falls and the traveling began to get tougher. The day was warming and I was sweating and I knew it would only get harder. Andy pulled ahead and I slowly marched on. Along the way we saw quite a few day hikers hiking to and from Mist Falls. It is a popular destination and I completely understand why. The defining characteristic of the hike to Mist Falls is I think the roaring river on your right (east). Maybe later in the year the waters aren't such a torrent but at this time of year you see nothing but raging whitewater. Mist Falls doesn't disappoint. I am not sure how tall a waterfall it actually is but the roiling water that is throwing off plenty of mist is impressive. It was also a great place to take yet another rest and put the 40-pound pack down. We still had about 2 miles to go to reach Lower Paradise Valley and another 700-800 feet of elevation to gain over the remaining distance. What a slog for my too-heavy body and pack. I really was feeling it as I crept up the switchbacks. Andy steadily pulled ahead and I steadily fell further behind. Surprisingly we continued to see day hikers who had gone as far as Lower Paradise Valley. There are some very fine views of the mountains but I am not sure I'd bother if I were doing just a day hike. It wasn't all toil and struggle. Along the way we did see those nice views and saw some neat flora and fauna including a neat, and we are pretty sure non-poisonous, snake (red next to black friend to jack; red next to yellow kill a fellow - this snake was red next to black). By the time I hauled my butt into Lower Paradise Valley Andy had been there for some 20 minutes and I was glad to stop as it had taken well over two hours to cover the measly distance from Mist Falls to the campground and it was approaching 17:00 (5:00PM). Perhaps we could have pushed on the 1.2 miles to Middle Paradise but I was quite happy to stop and start the slow process of setting up camp.
I'm not a very good tamper. It goes beyond my mediocre ability with knots. I think a lot more depends on my poor ability to get things positioned well especially getting the angles of guy lines to tarp just right. While more practice does help I just am not good at tarp setup. Thank goodness Andy is far better at it and willing to lend a hand. But somehow camp setup just always takes a long time. You might be able to improve things by getting multiple things going at the same time. For example, you could have water heating while you spend time - and it seems like a lot - inflating an Exped down air mattress (Exped 7 in my case). But I have never been really good at that sort of time optimization. Eventually we both were settling down to dinner and at about that time two or three deer decided to wander through our campsite. Deer don't care where they find their salt; or maybe urine doesn't taste bad to them. Fun to watch though one did come closer to Andy's tarp than he would have preferred.
Camp life is interesting. We were tired but neither of us was going to fall asleep super early. Sunset was around 20:00 , though the sun vanishes behind the mountains well before official sunset, and sunrise would be just before 06:00 (though the sun itself is not actually visible until somewhat later). That means a lengthy night, 10 hours, and that's certainly longer than we're likely going to sleep. But we aren't going to sit around a campfire chewing the fat. We might chew the fat but not around a fire as we are both too lazy to make a fire. But you still find things to do. Trying to figure out what the little red object in the sky is is a case in point. We were pretty sure it wasn't Mars. In time though we both settled down for bed and I'm quite sure we both slept pretty well even on the uneven ground until sunrise.
We did pretty well breaking camp. Our hope on our second day was to get to Castle Dome Meadow or maybe even the trail junction with the John Muir Trail (and PCT). That would require us to cover something like 8 or 9 miles and we figured it would be pretty much all climbing to about 8,400 feet - an elevation gain approaching 1,900 feet. It would turn out that what we were reading on the map and the reality were definitely two different things. Perhaps that says more about our map reading skills but I'm not convinced of that.
The hike started out gently enough as we headed towards Middle Paradise Valley. You gain a bit less than 100 feet over the 1.2 miles. We had a spot of self-created challenge trying to get across a stream. We definitely ended up making our lives a bit more difficult than we had to but it really did look like the stream crossing where the trail was wasn't practical. Live and learn. The trail began to surprise us when we left Middle Paradise as it seemed to rise and fall somewhat more than we expected. While the trend was ever upward we encountered descents too and the biggest of those was a total surprise after we forded a gushing chilly creek just before ascending again to a spot above a lovely valley with possible campsites.
Taken by Ken Knight. While Andy was checking out a preivvy with a view (I think he collects them as it were) I hung out by the river here at Middle Paradise Valley. Maybe we could have made it here last night but I know I would've been pooped. But it really is a pretty easy mile and change to this spot from Lower Paradise Valley.
Taken by Ken Knight. Andy is just over 6 feet tall so that should give you an idea of how big that downed tree behind him is. It's a lovely morning in the pine forest and we have forded a couple creeks as we approach Upper Paradise Valley.
Taken by Andy Mytys. Once you take your pants legs off once their is little reason to put them back on. It is surprisingly warm already and I wish I was wearing a lighter shirt than I am. I really expected it to be much cooler.
But for all the surprises I think we both found the going a bit easier than yesterday. Perhaps the enforced breaks at the stream crossings we had to contend with after Upper Paradise Valley played a role. We had several significant ascents with some nice gentle stretches between Upper Paradise and the descent towards a large meadow that would surprise us. Along the way we met a handful of people along the way. They told us that the trail was not too bad. While we took them at their word I think they forgot about some of the ascents and descents they had tackled on the way up and back down. It is easy to forget what the terrain is like after you have successfully crossed it. For example, while an agile person can ford some of the streams by crossing tree bridges I suspect many, and I'm in that group, will want to switch to water shoes and walk through the icy water. If time is a driving concern for you add 15-20 minutes for each crossing because it takes time to go through the gear changes on either side of the crossing (OK, maybe it's not quite that long but it sure felt that long). I believe we had 3 streams to contend with (or was it 4?). After crossing a big unnamed creek, should have a name; it's big with cataracts) we found the weather changing: it began to rain. We climbed out of the creek valley and to our surprise, and chagrin, found we had to descend a couple hundred feet. The views opened up to some really wonderful vistas that included some lovely fields of snow cascading down mountain slopes to the valley we were heading into but we weren't happy we were losing altitude that we'd have to regain later on.
Taken by Ken Knight. Sometimes you just need to see the world in black and white. To be sure a mildly rainy afternoon which is what this had become would cause some objects to truly stand out the glory here is best seen in stark contrasts.
Taken by Andy Mytys. By this point we have, in some ways worrisomely, closed the gap to this massive bear to certainly less than 100 meters. Andy swears he's 800 pounds and who am I to say he is wrong. It's hard to believe he did not know we were around but until I accidentally whacked a rock hard with a trekking pole he showed no concern. Once that happened he looked up and loped off away from us.
However, you can forget a lot when you see something special. The "Big Fucking Bear" we first saw some 400 yards away is a case in point. Andy couldn't tell if it was one truly huge male or, more worrisome, a sow with cubs. Our trail was going to take us nearer whatever it was. The bear, it would turn out to be a huge male, was in the meadow we thought we would camp at as we wanted to get out of the rain. But when you are confronted with such a grand beast the decision to let him have the meadow and keep going to find an uninhabited location to camp is pretty much a no brainier. You leave him be. Until we made a distinctly loud noise, a trekking pole whacked a rock, the bear didn't seem to care (hard to believe he hadn't known we were about) about us. The noise caused him to look up, we were probably less than 100 yards distant, then sauntered away. Personally I am glad I had company. The two of us should have looked bigger than we were and obviously I'd not have seen the huge bear anywhere near as quickly as Andy did. We would find a good campsite 30-40 minutes later - a campsite that was well above the valley of the bear (a mile away and 300 feet above). Again we adjusted our plans to better suit the actual conditions on the ground. Given the rainy weather our campsite was likely a better choice anyway as the trees may have provided some additional shelter from the rain. The only downside was the lack of accessible water.
In the next part, Days 4 through 6, we'll reach our highest point in so many senses of our trip./p>